Modern game lacks the skills to tackle art of defence

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The Independent Online

A football educator from the past, a man of mean disposition and craggy countenance, sought efficiency in acts of dispossession by forcing his younger pupils to drive their foot in at a medicine ball swung down from a rope attached to a rafter. The consequence of not carrying this out to his satisfaction was a kick up the backside. "Stay low, head in first," he would growl.

A football educator from the past, a man of mean disposition and craggy countenance, sought efficiency in acts of dispossession by forcing his younger pupils to drive their foot in at a medicine ball swung down from a rope attached to a rafter. The consequence of not carrying this out to his satisfaction was a kick up the backside. "Stay low, head in first," he would growl.

Even within the laws this was a prevailing image. Coaching manuals of the day portrayed two players in identical postures tackling each other in an identical way: weight on the tackling foot, head over the ball, shoulder to shoulder, looking down, grim in their application.

More than 50 years ago, Walter Winterbottom, who combined the duties of England team manager and director of coaching, wrote: "When an attacker is approaching, the defender makes his tackle to block the ball at the moment the attacker is playing it. If he attempts to block the ball, he must get his body weight well over it so that the tackling foot can be used forcefully." There have been some changes made. Fifteen years on from Winterbottom's studious instruction, Malcolm Allison identified the most important in his celebrated book Soccer for Thinkers. "Today everyone is expected to be able to tackle," he wrote.

What Allison had in mind was the increasing speed of the game and a growing emphasis on athleticism. When you add the nervousness imposed by the introduction of yellow cards, and Fifa's apparent failure to realise that there is a line so fine as to be almost indistinguishable between the viciously callous and the coldly competent, it is no wonder that proper tackling has long since gone out of fashion.

"How much does Nobby Stiles weigh?" Alf Ramsey was asked before a match between England Sweden in Stockholm. "About 10 stones," came the reply. "Ten tons when he tackles." Wasn't he just? But how long would Stiles remain on the field today?

Incidents from recent matches I have watched live or on television got me off on this theme. The first involved the Arsenal midfielder Robin van Persie, who was sent off against Southampton for a dangerous lunge that brought him a second yellow card. Seeing this I winced, not only at the wildness of the Dutchman's challenge after losing the ball but his probable fate in a bygone era. Earlier this week I put this to a legendary hard case who inflicted plenty of pain in his time. "In my day it would have been odds on a broken leg," he said. "Not the Southampton player, but Van Persie."

The second incident came in the Carling Cup final between Chelsea and Liverpool. In this case, a two-footed challenge by Steven Gerrard which, astonishingly, did not incur the wrath of the referee. Gerrard is an aggressive player but correct tackling is not one of his strong points. Maybe it stems from the fact he runs on his heels and his feet are at 10 to two. I could be wrong in this but it strikes me as a reasonable theory.

One of the best ever tackles was made by Bobby Moore when England met Brazil in a group game during the 1970 World Cup finals in Mexico. Isolated on his side of the field, Moore halted the muscular winger Jairzinho with a perfectly delivered challenge that caused the Brazilian to shudder; it had the lot - positioning, balance, power. If not the quickest, Moore conformed to the lessons of his youth. He was seldom off his feet.

Because of the pace of modern football, players frequently find themselves in desperate circumstances, caught up in foolhardy commitment, chasing lost causes, ignorant of tackling fundamentals. "Most of them don't have a clue," an old pro said this week. "They run back, fling themselves in on the ground and then complain that they got a foot to the ball. Tackling is a lost art." He was speaking of another time; maybe better, maybe not, but different.

Over the past seven or eight years there have been few players of his type in English football, that of an all-purpose inside-forward, better than Paul Scholes. But as a tackler, Scholes is a liability, as was another Old Trafford hero, Eric Cantona. Sir Alex Ferguson might as well tell him not to bother. Scholes is zealous by nature and tackling is not in his technical compass.

As for the tutor referred to at the beginning of this column, he was a great believer in establishing numerical advantage. "If we can get one of them off things will be easier," he'd say. "Get two off and the game is ours." When substitutes were introduced he threw up his arms in despair.

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